PRESTONSBURG — Some students at Prestonsburg High School and their parents complain that the condition of textbooks at the school is interfering with students’ ability to study.
But local education officials say there is no problem with books at the school, and that what parents and students are seeing is the beginning of a transition away from textbooks altogether.
Books in poor condition, or no books at all
None of the parents or students interviewed wanted to have their names published, but all of them described books that are falling apart, with ripped pages, torn covers and sometimes no covers at all. Further, they all said that students in many classes are not allowed to take books out of their classrooms, while some classes have no textbooks at all.
One woman interviewed recalled talking to one of her son’s friends, who told her of having to sneak books out of the school, just to be able to study at home.
“I couldn’t believe it,” the woman said. “I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me!”
Another parent described similar situation with her son, who was told he could only take books home to study if he “checked them out.”
“I feel that books for every student should be a basic requirement,” the parent said. “I understand that the school system faces financial choices they have to make, but also feel that an adequate number of books should not be one of those choices.”
As The Times reported Nov. 3, during the most recent round of state testing, Prestonsburg High School was one of two schools in the district named a “focus school,” a negative designation meaning that the school will receive additional attention from administrators in an effort to bring up scores.
According to the Department of Education report, Prestonsburg scored 41.8 on the 100-point assessment, the lowest score of any school in the district and nearly 6 points lower than the average for all high school students in the county.
In addition, according to school and district reports cards, while Floyd County elementary and middle school students tend to score higher than the state average on standardized tests, high school students score well below the state average.
Not a problem?
Prestonsburg High School Principal Jerry Butcher deferred most questions concerning the issue to the superintendent’s office, but he disagreed that a lack of textbooks is a problem at the school.
“I don’t know of any kid who needs a book who doesn’t have a book,” Butcher said.
Superintendent Henry Webb noted that, while textbooks remain an important resource for students, they are beginning to be less important, especially in light of all the resources teachers have at their disposal through the Internet.
“Education in general has moved away from ‘start on page 1 and go to page 700,’” Webb said. “As a matter of fact, we discourage that. With the new common core standards, the textbooks are not aligned to the national standards, page 1 to page 700.”
Webb also noted that state funding for textbooks has been cut more than 90 percent over the past few years, as lawmakers have struggled with a tight budget.
In August 2010, Kentucky Teacher magazine, which is published by the state Department of Education, reported that textbook money was slashed that year from $21 million statewide, to $600,000 in 2011 and $640,000 in 2012.
Webb said those cuts have meant very little money specifically for books in school budgets, leaving school site-based councils to juggle funds between books, professional development, technology and other needs.
“Now, I’m not going to be dishonest — yes, the state cutting textbook funds has hurt tremendously,” Webb said. “But I’m not sure today, in 2012, if it was still $21 million, every school would buy textbooks. We might actually use that money to buy more technology.”
Academics vs. athletics
Still, some parents and students questioned why the school couldn’t have spent more on textbooks, when the school has had money to install a new artificial turf football field and to renovate the basketball gym with a new paint and seats.
Webb acknowledged that the school had spent a combined $1 million on the athletic improvements, but he said most of that money came from funding that could not have been used for textbooks or any other purpose.
“The funds that we use to upgrade facilities most of the time cannot even be spent on textbooks and those kinds of things, because they are all bonding money,” Webb said. “They are set aside for that in the law.”
Still, the superintendent said improvements to athletic facilities should not be discounted, because the district believes in improving all aspects of school life. And he noted that there are safety issues behind some of the improvements.
“One of the things we believe in, to have a district of excellence, everything has to be excellent,” Webb said. “Textbooks have got to be excellent, technology’s got to be excellent, facilities have got to be excellent. We believe we’ve got to have schools where students want to come to school and be part of things.”
The district’s Facility Plan, approved in November 2011 and available on the Department of Education website, lists numerous athletic improvements, but most of its over $69 million budget for priority construction projects is related to a long-term plan to consolidate Allen Central and South Floyd high schools, and to convert Allen Central to a new home for the vocational school and transportation and maintenance departments, and to convert South Floyd into a new consolidated home for students from McDowell and Osborne elementary school.
The plan lists $837,201 for athletic improvements at Prestonsburg in its discretionary projects, which includes the basketball gym renovation just completed, at a cost of around $300,000, according to Webb, as well as the construction of a soccer field.
Among the priority projects for Prestonsburg is the construction of a new 350-seat auditorium, at a cost of $1.1 million.
Webb said the school system has invested heavily in technology and now has a 2.1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio throughout the district. He also said future plans call for even more investment in technology, which will allow schools to move away from textbooks altogether, in favor of computer-based resources.
“We’re using a lot more technology and really — where we really want to go, to be very honest with you — we’re talking now our plans are to put wireless [internet] in our district within the next 12 months, where every building, throughout the building, will be wireless,” Webb said. “And then we’re looking at maybe some BYOD — ‘bring your own device’ — or providing some. We have several kids with iPhones, iPads, laptops and then providing those for kids who don’t have them.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised in 5-to-10 years if textbooks, there are just very few of them.”
That is already the case in some classes, Butcher said. He said the school’s Spanish teacher has completely forsaken using textbooks for classes, in favor of using resources available online and through handout materials.
“I walk in there and I can’t understand what they’re saying, but that’s a good thing,” Butcher said of the Spanish class. “That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Still, during the transition, Webb said textbooks will remain important, and the district wants to hear from parents if they feel their children do not have the resources they need to learn properly.
“What we don’t want are barriers to learning, because we are all about trying to become a top 50 school district and striving for excellence,” Webb said. “So we don’t want barriers out there, and we had about three of our principals out of 15 who emailed back and said textbooks were any problem at all.”